A Complicated Kindness
Knopf Canada, 246 pages, $29.95
Nomi Nickel, a teenage aspirant to the East Village, Manhattan, is stuck in East Village, Manitoba. It's a fundamentalist, shun-you-if-you-stray Mennonite community, an easy bike ride north of the U.S. border. East Village is best surveyed from the summit of Suicide Hill. Look beyond East Village -- you don't have to look very far -- and you can see the twinkling lights of the city, whence travel is discouraged by means of suasion both practical -- no bus or train comes to or goes from East Village -- and psychic -- the city is the top step on Hell's well-greased escalator. East Village is small and isolated, but it provides. There are jobs (seasonal) to be had churning butter and slaughtering pigs and looking severe for tourists at the pioneer village. Also, and more substantially, there is the chicken abattoir, a beacon of vocational hopefulness for high-school graduates-to-be.
Nomi is more than usually bright, but it's not at all apparent that graduation is in her cards. She misses more classes than she attends. She steers a collision course with authority, with her teachers and with her uncle Hans, a.k.a. the Mouth, the spiritual leader of the sect. Nomi is chaos theory incarnate, her entropy fuelled by hormones, intoxicants, insomnia, depression and a family that's disintegrating around her. She's been abandoned by her older sister, Tash, and her mother, Trudie. Both fled without saying goodbye. She mourns their leaving, as does her father, Ray.
Nomi and Ray, a teacher, cope as best they can with carefully alphabetized menus, cheerful nostrums and small systems they invent for getting by. None of these ploys works. Ray sits on his lawn chair and stares into the middle distance, or else he drives, alone, for hours every night. Piece by piece, he empties their house of furniture, and piece by piece, Nomi comes apart.
Lord in heaven, it all sounds grim, and lord in heaven, it is, it really is. So why the compulsion to laugh so often and so heartily when reading A Complicated Kindness? That's the book's mystery and its miracle. Has any of our novelists ever married, so brilliantly, the funny -- and I mean posture-damaging, shoulder-heaving, threaten-the-grip-of-gravity-on-recently-ingested-food brand of funny -- and the desperately sad -- that would be the three-ply-tissue, insufficient-to-the-day, who-knew-I-had-this-much-snot-in-me brand of sad? I don't think so.
Miriam Toews did herself proud with her first two novels, the widely praised Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding, but A Complicated Kindness makes it clear that she was flexing her muscles, getting ready for this sustained power lift. Writing is a kind of channelling, and from word alpha to word omega, Toews is both inhabited by and in tight control of Nomi, the voice: acerbic, wounded, puzzled, defiant, generous, odious, smart. This is very active writing -- Nomi's days, while straitened by circumstance, are full of adolescent, exploratory events -- and it's the kind of writing that calls attention -- though not in a showy, precious way -- to the truth that this old language is far from done, that even its most plain-spun, worsted words can be ordered in ways that surprise and delight.
Here is a representative passage, the opening of chapter six: "When we were little, Tash and I would sit in the darkened dining room of my grandmother's farmhouse, listening to the funeral announcements. They came on after supper, on the local radio station we were allowed to listen to because the elders knew it was better for little children to listen to the names of dead people being read out in a terrifying monotone than the Beatles singing all we need is love. Afterwards my grandma would tell us: They have gone home at last. Praise the Lord. Then we would play this game called Knipsbrat with each other until our middle fingers were sore. It was one of the few games we were allowed to play. Golf was another one because it consisted of using a rod to hit something much, much smaller than yourself and a lot of men in this town enjoyed that sort of thing.
"When I was a kid I stood in fields pretending I was a scarecrow. It was a sin to pretend we were something other that what we were but I have always enjoyed standing very still in fields. And often, when sin is used in the name of farming, Mennonites look the other way."
In these few words -- I could have chosen from any other page of the book to find writing of similar quality and dark humour -- you get a sense of the novel's themes and the tone of wry, rueful irony -- of rage, really, but mediated by art -- that runs throughout the narrative. Nomi's amazed, amused anger -- and perhaps it's shared by Miriam Toews, I have no way of knowing -- is directed at the stiff-necked practitioners of a faith that has evolved, or devolved, to brutalize more than it embraces; at the sustaining hypocrisy of a town where owning a Kris Kristofferson eight-track puts you in league with the devil (which, in fact, it might), but where it's godly to render invisible someone who's been named untouchable by the elders; where kids party all Saturday night in the gravel pits and then go straight to church and harmonize to The Old Rugged Cross. She sees all this, names all this, yet recognizes in the same moment that there is in East Village a kind of goodness, a complicated kindness; recognizes that while this excuses nothing, it is not, at least, a place of uncluttered cruelty.
There is so much here that's accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews's crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett and Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to care; okay, comes to love.
There's a superabundance of good writing in this country now, so much being published that excites admiration, so much intelligence on display. That said, it's still rare to find yourself caught, as you are here, by a compelling voice informed as much by the heart as by the head. Early on in her telling of her story, Nomi looks at a blood smear on the wall above her bed -- it's been there for a while -- and remembers the circumstances that led her to fall from her bike, remembers the gravel embedded in her cheek, the bleeding, the stain. "It bothered me in a Charles Manson kind of way to have a brown smear of blood on my wall but I also liked it because every time I looked at it I was reminded that I was, at that very moment, not bleeding from my face. And those are powerful words of hope, really."
So let the writer provide her own summation. Come to the end of this short, fierce, funny novel, that's what you're left with, the certainty that these have been powerful words of hope. And bully for that. And bully times two for Miriam Toews.
Bill Richardson is a writer and broadcaster who lives in Vancouver.
Readers can find the first chapter of Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness today on The Globe's website, https://www.theglobeandmail.com.